Invisible Man, written with ingenuity by Ralph Waldo Ellison, is a masterpiece by
itself, but it also intertwines into every page one or more allusions to previously written
masterpieces. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, and whether it was Ellison who
incorporated the works into his own or others who incorporated his work into their own,
it makes for a brilliant piece of literature. Ellison defines the character of the Invisible
Man through literary, Biblical, and historical allusions.
In the "Prologue," the narrator writes, “Call me Jack-the-Bear, for I am in
hibernation” (6). . Although vague, this reference to Jack indicates all the Jacks in the
fairy tales (Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack and Jill, etc.) Jack, the common protagonist,
allows the reader to know that Invisible Man is the protagonist right away. The comment
that he is in hibernation refers to his constant battle between being the protagonist or the
antagonist; whether to act according to his feelings and instincts, or to try to follow the
mysterious words of his deceased grandfather. Also, Brother Jack can be seen as a
protagonist throughout the book as well. Even earlier in the chapter, a reference to Edgar
Allan Poe is made; “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted
Edgar Allan Poe...” This allusion, clear and concise, refers to the "spooks" who haunted
Edgar Allan Poe and right away defines the narrator's invisibility. He is not a ghost or
spirit, but is invisible through his character, actions, and feelings about himself.
In addition to these allusions, Dante's Inferno is referred to in the Prologue as well.
Invisible Man relates the action of going to his home in the basement of the apartment
building to descending into Hell. He comments that his “hole is warm and full of light... I
doubt that there is a brighter spot in all of New York than this hole of mine..” (6.) This
“hole” that the narrator refers to is the basement home that he discovers later in the novel.
This is when he also realizes and accepts his invisibility. At this time the Invisible Man is
both happy to accept his identity (or lack thereof) and bitter at the realization that he has
no identity. This is why he refers to this as a place similar to hell,...
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...he will always be black. No matter how much he, or any of his Brothers attempt to
liberate themselves, they will never be able to rid themselves of the burden of their brown
skin. Another historical allusion occurs on page 389 when Brother Tarp gives a special
gift to the Invisible Man. He gives him a link of the chain the locked him down during his
years of slavery. This is a shock to the narrator because it forces him to realize how
recent slavery occurred. At first, he does not want the object, but after being scolded for
having it on his desk by another Brother, he has grown attached to it. both the bank and
the link are objects that stayed with the narrator throughout the story. On page 548 he
drops his brief case containing his treasured, yet burdensome items, and insists on going
back against a sheet of fire to retrieve the brief case. This is another example of how these
items have become part of his identity.
Allusions are an extremely effective device in literature. They help to reinforce
ideas previously thought of by others. In Invisible Man the narrator’s character is
successfully defined through the use of allusions throughout the novel
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